— Malou Mangahas, PCIJ, January 2012
That’s the score of the so-called “Gods of Padre Faura” – the justices of the Supreme Court – as well as those in the Court of Appeals, the Sandiganbayan, and all the judges and personnel of the judiciary. Zero in their disclosure of the full details of their statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth or SALN for the last two decades.
Since 1992, the asset records of the judiciary have remained sub rosa or secret on account of a series of self-serving resolutions that the high court under a series of chief justices had issued.
It began when the high court under then chief justice Andres Narvasa first granted virtual rank exemption for all judiciary personnel from compliance with Republic Act No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.
The Narvasa court’s decision was affirmed in subsequent resolutions of the chief justices that followed, namely Hilario Davide Jr., Artemio Panganiban, Reynato Puno, and now Renato C. Corona.
As a result, multiple requests for copies of SALNs from the high court and the appellate court that the PCIJ over the years have to this day yielded zero documents.
In 2006, the PCIJ filed a request for the SALNs of the judges and justices, up the level of the Supreme Court, so these could be uploaded on PCIJ’s online database, http://i-site.ph.
The PCIJ, however, never received a formal response from the Supreme Court. It learned that the Court had denied one of its requests only because an enterprising reporter of The Manila Times made a story out of it. The reporter saw a July 2009 PCIJ letter request for SALNs and asked for a specific explanation why the Court could not grant access. The Court told the reporter that by making the SALN public on PCIJ website, the public may use the information against the justices.
On April 27, 2006, the Supreme Court issued a “Media Backgrounder” defining the procedure for “Request of Copies of Statements of Assets and Liabilities of Justices, Judges and Court Personnel.”
The “Media Backgrounder” is still the latest resolution of the high court restricting access to the SALNs not only of magistrates, but also that of all court personnel. It remains in force to this day.
Among other things, it states that there should be “a legitimate reason” for the request, since access to such documents could lead to supposed “fishing expeditions” by litigants and other parties against judiciary personnel.
In the “Backgrounder,” the Court reasoned that such requests could also undermine the independence of justices, and expose them to retaliation for adverse decisions, or even to extortion, kidnapping, and blackmail. The Court added, “In the few areas where there is extortion by rebel elements of where the nature of their work exposes to assaults against their personal safety, the request shall not only be denied but should be immediately reported to the military.”
Interestingly, the guidelines include a provision that says the Court must state “the reason for the denial” of the request – something it failed to do with that of PCIJ.
In 2009, the tribunal informed the PCIJ that the en banc had created a “special committee” to study the consolidated requests of the PCIJ for the SALNs, as well as the personal data sheets and curriculum vitae (PDS/CVs) of the justices.
Chaired by Associate Justice Minita Chico-Nazario until she retired in 2010, neither the committee nor the high court has revealed whatever came of the several hearings that the committee had conducted.
This is even as the PCIJ in October 2009 filed a 19-page pleading with the office of the Court Administrator to submit its views to the committee.
It noted that the duty of public officials to disclose their SALNs is enshrined in Section 17 Article XI & Section 28 Article II of the 1987 Constitution that declares: “Subject to reasonable conditions prescribed by law, the State adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest.”
In the pleading, the PCIJ was represented by three lawyers adept in freedom of information issues: Nepomuceno Malaluan of the Action for Economic Reforms, and Professors Solomon Lumba and Marvic M.V.F. Leonen, at the time the secretary and dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law, respectively.
Aside from records of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, the pleading cited arguments from the records of the Senate, decisions of the Supreme Court itself, jurisprudence in the United States, and the practice of the US Federal Supreme Court to argue for full and prompt disclosure of the justices’ SALNs.
The PCIJ pleading noted that in several rulings, the Supreme Court itself held that the Constitution clearly guarantees the people’s right to access information and spells out the obligation or duty of public officials to disclose information.
Too, the pleading pointed out that high court rulings have asserted that, “when it comes to the right of the people to information on matters of public concern, the presumption is in favor of access by the public because to hold otherwise ‘will serve to dilute the constitutional right’.”
“Thus, the duty to disclose information should be differentiated from the duty to permit access to information,” the pleading said. “There is no need to demand from the government agency disclosure of information as this is mandatory under the Constitution; failing that, legal remedies are available.”
Culling Constitutional Commission records, the pleading cited this statement by the late Senator and Commissioner Blas F. Ople: “This is a mandate on the State to be accountable by following a policy of full public disclosure. For example, information concerning loans contracted by the government ought to be made available. Public officials should follow this policy by submitting their statements of assets and liabilities and making them available for public scrutiny, not merely storing them in the archives, which is what happens most of the time.”
The pleading argued that, “the principle of independence of the judiciary does not bar disclosure of or access to the SALNs of the justices.
In Duplantier v United States of America, an action challenging the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the United States Court of Appeals 5th Circuit discussed many, if not all, of the competing interests involved.
The plaintiffs contended that the requirement for judges to file personal financial reports for public disclosure under the Act intrudes upon the independent, decisional freedom of United States judges and thereby violates the constitutional principle of separation of powers.
They further argued that the Act unconstitutionally interferes with judicial independence by subjecting federal judges to familial disquiet, political pressure, and increased threats of physical or economic harm at the hands of criminals and disgruntled litigants.
Some of the Duplantier considerations were also touched upon in the Supreme Court en banc resolution dated May 2, 1989, establishing its policy for the release of SALNs of members of the judiciary.
But the Court also noted that similar requests may not be made upon the justices and judges of the Court of Appeals, Sandiganbayan, Court of Tax Appeals, Regional Trial Courts, Shari’a Courts, Metropolitan Trial Courts, Municipal Trial Courts, and Municipal Circuit Trial Courts under circumstances that may endanger, diminish or destroy their independence and objectivity in the performance of their judicial functions or expose them to revenge for adverse decisions, kidnapping, extortion, blackmail, or other untoward consequences.
As such, it resolved to lay down guidelines on requests for SALNs of justices, judges, and court personnel, citing that, “the independence of the Judiciary is constitutionally as important as the right to information which is subject to the limitations provided by law. Under specific circumstances, the need for the fair and just adjudication of litigations may require a court to be wary of deceptive requests for information which shall otherwise be freely available.”
The Constitution, however, clearly enrolls the Supreme Court justices among the officials who must, upon assumption of office, and as often as may be required by law, “submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth.”
The Charter also stipulates: “In the case of the President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Commissions and other constitutional offices, and officers of the armed forces with general or flag rank, the declaration shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.”
But the PCIJ pleading lamented that “the manner in which the Supreme Court has historically dealt with requests for SALNs of members of the judiciary has not always been consistent with this presumption” of the people’s right to access information.
An en banc resolution dated May 2, 1989 required SALN requesters to state the purpose of the request and outlined the conditions under which requests would be denied.
This resolution was followed by the high court’s resolution in Administrative Matter No.92-9-851–RTC, in which it turned more restrictive. It authorized the Court Administrator “to act on requests for copies of the assets and liabilities, as well as other papers and documents on file with the 201 Personnel Records of lower court judges and personnel, only upon a court subpoena duly signed by the Presiding Judge in a pending criminal case against a judge or personnel, and in the case of the Ombudsman, upon the appropriate request personally signed by the Ombudsman.”
Previous PCIJ requests for SALNs had all met with denials from the high court.
On June 6, 2006, the PCIJ wrote Clerk of Court Ma. Luisa Villarama to get copies of the justices’ SALNs, stating that “the data will be used for the PCIJ’s website on Philippine politics and governance.”
On the same day, Ismael Khan Jr., then Assistant Court Administrator and Chief of the Public Information Office, responded and enclosed a “Media Backgrounder” embodying guidelines governing the procedures for the release of the SALNs.
On August 2, 2006, the PCIJ sent Khan another letter seeking clarification on whether the request has been denied, and if so, to state the reason for the denial. If it had not been denied, the PCIJ wrote, would Khan’s office then kindly inform it of what is lacking in the request?
Five days later, Khan responded, stating that PCIJ had to “fully comply with the guidelines”; and that the Court found that the reason stated was “insufficient and hence would like to be apprised of the specific purpose or purposes for which the SALNs of the SC Justices will be used.”
On August 9, 2006, the PCIJ wrote Khan to offer a more detailed explanation about its information website, but received no response to this.
The pending PCIJ pleading before the high court averred that the wording of the tribunal’s two resolutions and the manner in which these have been interpreted and applied indicate that “whenever there is a request for SALNs of members of the judiciary, it is the burden of the requester to establish the legitimacy of the purpose of his request.”
Even worse, it said, this burden on the requester has been imposed despite “the wide latitude of discretion of the Court or its functionaries to pass upon the legitimacy of said purpose, as can be seen in PCIJ’s experience.”
“The effect is to nullify the presumption in favor of disclosure to or access by the public,” the pleading added.
To this day, nearly 25 years after the 1987 Constitution was ratified with firm guarantees of the people’s right to know, “no one has, as of yet, successfully requested from the Court the SALNs of Justices of the Supreme Court…the presumption is actually against disclosure or access.”
What follows is the paper trail (and pertinent records) of this 20-year fruitless effort to pry open the asset records of the judiciary:
- I. PCIJ Memorandum/Pleading, October 2009, A.M. No. 09-8-6-SC RE: Request for Copies of the SALNs and PDS/CVs of the Justices of the Supreme Court.
- II. PCIJ Request Letters for SALNs of the Justices (Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Sandiganbayan)
- Letter dated July 17, 2009 addressed to Associate Justice Diosdado M.Peralta, Sandiganbayan
- Letter dated July 30, 2009 addressed to Hon. Conrado M. Vasquez Jr., Court of Appeals
- Letter dated July 30, 2009 addressed to Chief Justice Reynato Puno, Supreme Court
- Letter dated August 11, 2009 addressed to Associate Maria Cristina C.Estrada, Sandiganbayan
- Sandiganbayan’s reply dated August 14, 2009
- Letter dated August 13, 2009 addressed to Chief Justice Reynato Puno, Supreme Court
- Letter dated August 19, 2009 addressed to Chief Justice Reynato Puno, Supreme Court
- Letter dated December 19, 2012 addressed to Chief Justice Renato Corona, Supreme Court.
- III. PCIJ Letters to the Justices of the Supreme Court inquiring about their business interests still listed in their names, as per public records available with the Securities and Exchange Commission:
- Letter to Bersamin dated May 20, 2010
- Letter to De Castro dated May 20, 2010
- Letter to Carpio dated May 19, 2010
- Letter to Corona dated May 19, 2010
IV. Justices’ reply letters to the PCIJ:
- Abad’s reply dated May 28, 2010
- Bersamin’s reply dated May 24, 2010
- Carpio’s reply dated June 3, 2010
- Corona’s reply dated May 25, 2010
- Peralta’s reply dated June 9, 2010